It’s 1991: Nintendo accounts for 90% of the $3 billion U.S. video games sector and consoles are being sold on the prospect of fans racing through Green Hill Zone with Sonic, or hopping the flagpole with Mario.

Thirty years on and 87% of internet users play games on any device, steering a $150 billion gaming industry toward $359 billion by 2025. Mario and Sonic may have since made amends, but the console war still wages on.

With Sony and Microsoft ready to launch their 9th generation flagships – the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, respectively – we look at the console landscape using our Core survey and custom research fielded in October to answer the following questions:

  • What factors are most important in future console purchases?
  • How has the outbreak affected the gaming industry?
  • Who’s the favorite brand, and how might this change?

1. Console interest favors Sony – but gamers like to play around.

Loyalty is especially important this time around.

Some eighth-generation console gamers will be expected to upgrade from devices they’ve been using for as many as eight years now – that’s quite the library of games and achievements made redundant if they choose to switch brands.

Retaining player bases should be as much a priority as acquiring new ones – for Sony, this will be a considerably important move. 

Chart showing Sony is looking to player base, whilst poaching others.

Globally, console gamers currently using the PS4 seemingly have their minds made up on Sony, with over 2 in 3 interested in purchasing the PS5.

Xbox One users, meanwhile, are on the fence; over half are looking to migrate to the PS5 and 1 in 4 are interested in the Nintendo Switch.

An audience drop off on this scale would be devastating for Microsoft, but there’s some important caveats to be aware of before Sony declares victory.

Nintendo is the one to watch as they’re still gaming in the eighth-generation. While Switch users currently skew interest in the PS5, a ninth-generation entrance from Nintendo may cause them to reconsider.

Sony shouldn’t get complacent – just 1 in 5 UK and U.S. console gamers say loyalty to a brand would motivate them to buy a new console.

And if history is anything to go by, the shift to a new device generation rarely favors the incumbent console king.

For example, among all console gamers, 16% still use a Nintendo Wii – launched in 2006. However, its follow-up, the Wii U, failed to match its success – a feat only later accomplished by the Nintendo Switch.

Additionally, around 1 in 5 say they use the Xbox 360 – first launched in 2005 – on par with the Xbox One, the latter having lost players to Sony in a brief, but memorable display at E3 in 2011.

2. Expect console gamers to use more devices.

It’s no secret the pandemic has led to a surge in gaming activity. Our data confirms this: 

44% of UK and U.S. console gamers are playing more games since the COVID-19 outbreak.

As such, the arrival of two new flagship devices couldn’t be more timely.

But it’s not just the act of gaming that’s increased – gaming on multiple platforms is now more common too, with 68% of all console gamers playing games on 3 or more devices as of Q2 2020.

Using our core data, 55% of console gamers say they’re interested in purchasing both the PS5 and Xbox Series X, signalling that devotion to one brand may become less common.

Developers no doubt want their device to be the console-of-choice under trees this Christmas, but if taking the secondary-console slot becomes an option, then they’ll have the Switch to compete with – of which 20% of console gamers currently use, on par with Microsoft’s Xbox One.

Contending with Nintendo’s unprecedented lockdown sales will prove difficult but after all, this is 2020.

3. Cheaper alternatives will likely overshadow hardware limitations.

As of Q2 2020, 23% of all console gamers expect their personal finances to get worse in the next 6 months – a 136% increase since Q1 2020.

While cost is always important in the case of big-ticket items, the devastating financial impact of the pandemic has only made this factor more concerning, subsequently, 43% of console gamers in the UK and U.S. expect to spend less this holiday season.

Among console gamers in the UK and U.S., 59% say price is the most important factor in purchasing a new console – rising to 61% in the UK where a second national lockdown is expected to harm retailers on launch day.

In response, Sony and Microsoft are releasing cheaper alternatives to their standard-edition consoles from launch – the PS5 Digital Edition and Xbox Series S, respectively – following Nintendo’s lead from the Switch Lite.

But there’s a catch.

Both Sony and Microsoft’s frugal-minded consoles are digital-only; no discs. Furthermore, the Series S, though significantly cheaper than its Sony counterpart, poses hardware limitations compared to the Series X – while each variant of the PS5 remains technically equal.

The question is, are console gamers willing to make the trade-off?

Chart showing cost and game availability beat out hardware requirements.

No matter what console UK and U.S. gamers are interested in buying; price and game availability always take priority over hardware.

This is noticeable among Switch intenders, where just under 3 in 10 say speed or processing power is important when purchasing a new console. 

While these technical features are considered more important among PS5 and Series X intenders, the message is clear – console gamers are willing to trade hardware capabilities for price and playability.

While we’re far from the epitome of what gaming technology can achieve, developers are relying on it less to sell consoles, as changing consumer priorities have warranted a rethink of what matters most in console adoption.

Microsoft’s recent commitment to lower priced hardware for the foreseeable future is an example of this, but it’s a greater emphasis on games that really stands out.

4. The console with all the games holds all the cards.

This year’s virtual showcases sought to emphasize each new console’s upcoming games in the hopes of tempting would-be console adopters ahead of launch. 

There were new entries from some familiar faces; Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed and even a new God of War – but not all viewers were looking at the games to come.

Backwards compatibility was a hot-topic this year, with Sony and Microsoft fans expecting a full back-catalog of titles from their respective libraries. 

And with 1 in 5 UK and U.S. 9th generation console intenders saying this is important in console adoption, cloud gaming will be crucial in achieving this.

Chart showing subscription and cloud-gaming services are important.

In the past month, 20% of all console gamers considering a PS5 or Xbox Series X have used a cloud gaming service. They’re 25% more likely to have done so than the average console gamer – with Series X intenders 41% more likely.

Though they’re likely to have purchased games online or used a subscription service – where monthly free games are available – cloud gaming offers a larger selection of games without purchasing games individually.

This is ideal, considering price is so important this time around.

Such services only further benefit the cheaper alternative consoles – given their lack of a disc drive prevents owners from using physical games they already own.

Sony is banking on users playing a history of classic PlayStation titles through its PS Plus Collection service; but that’s exclusive for PS5 owners, meaning PS4 gamers will be left behind.

Gamers in the UK and U.S. interested in buying the Xbox Series X are 36% more likely to say consoles integrating with other devices is important.

Given this is integral to cloud-gaming, Microsoft’s Game Pass service isn’t just a tempting offer for playing thousands of games on console, but mobiles and PC/laptops too.

Here’s to the future

This generation will no doubt introduce new worlds, engaging narratives and – almost certainly – some lessons to be learned for developers too. Down the line, be sure to expect the following:

  • Gaming will only continue to become more popular – While the outbreak has made for a more frugal holiday season, the gaming habits forged in the past year look likely to stay. In the long term, multi-platform ownership will become more common as console exclusives entice gamers between brands.
  • Hardware upgrades are a certain down the line – These consoles will receive an upgrade during their lifespan – just as Sony did with the PS4 Pro and Microsoft’s Xbox One X. However, with gamers less enthusiastic about technical features this time around, expect them to focus on changes to how games are played, such as with VR or motion-control.
  • Expect a LOT more games from the past – Game availability is vital to console purchase so expect cloud-gaming, backwards compatibility, and remasters to be a lot more common. Gaming’s rich history means gamers won’t be limited to the titles yet to come, but instead granted access to those they missed, loved, and lost.
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